Future Materials and Australian Nanotechnology Alliance

In this Issue

Forthcoming Events

Education + employment = economic growth (E3)

E3 is fundamental for a strong economy. In my short time with both Future Materials and the Australian Nanotechnology Alliance (ANA), I’ve seen how important it is to build bridges between our universities (education) and industry (employment). The current economic downturn needs us all to rethink our business plans, and it’s my belief that research and development will provide the key to ensuring productivity gains and an ability to leap frog competitors in a tightening market.

This month Future Materials is interacting with the Australian Research Network for Advanced Materials (ARNAM) at its annual workshop (taking place this year at Deakin University’s campus near Geelong). ARNAM and Future Materials work closely in encouraging research collaborations and exchanging ideas, and ARNAM does a fantastic job when it comes to providing career guidance and opportunities for early career researchers and research students.

I’ve been working with ARNAM President Professor Jim Williams of ANU and Professor Xungai Wang of Deakin University to put the final touches on the ARNAM Industry Forum taking place on the final day of the workshop (December 18). The Forum will allow students and scientists to hear from industry representatives as they discuss the critical importance of skilled researchers in sustaining the competitiveness of industry.

If you are in, or can travel to Geelong for the December 18th Industry Day, you are most welcome to attend and learn how key industry entrepreneurs utilise the E³ model, thereby maintaining their leadership in the materials environment. Contact me on c.gerbo@uq.edu.au for further information.

I’ve been privileged over recent months to have had the opportunity to tour parts of Queensland for a national program supported by the Australian Office of Nanotechnology and the Queensland Government. The visits to industry and government have allowed me to talk up about the opportunities that materials science offers.

Throughout these visits the interest in advanced materials has been positive, and there is a definite willingness to learn about new technologies and their application in specific industry applications. However, the discussion quickly turns to the current economic uncertainty we’re experiencing and concerns about investing in new technologies in such an environment. The other comment I’ve constantly heard, and especially from small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), is a concern about establishing research links with universities and other publicly funded research organisations. SMEs in the most part don’t believe that such collaborations are for them - they consider the university-industry link is mainly about large organisations; or it’s too difficult to find the right person within the research structure.

These are all real issues that are impacting on Australia’s ability to take up R&D. In response, the Queensland Department of Tourism, Regional Development and Industry have asked the Australian Nanotechnology Alliance (ANA) to be available to provide advice to both inidual businesses and industry groups on how to link with either individual researchers or facilities with the expertise in specific areas. While this program is in its infancy, the ANA has already provided links to a number of companies.

As we approach the end of the year, I’d like to wish you all an enjoyable and relaxing festive season. Stay safe and look forward to more issues of Future Materials in the new year.

Carla Gerbo

Research News

Carbon nanotube breakthrough

In collaboration with scientists from the NanoTech Institute of the University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) - CSIRO has achieved a major breakthrough in the development of a commercially-viable manufacturing process for a range of materials made from carbon nanotubes.

Nanotube Sheet

Carbon nanotubes could appear in a wide range of new materials and fabrics.

Carbon nanotubes possess a number of qualities - high tensile strength, high flexibility, high electrical and thermal conductivity, and transparency - which have excited great interest in a number of manufacturing industries including the electronic, automotive, energy and clothing industries. The flexible carbon nanotubes have been spun into ribbons that conduct electricity efficiently - and are five times stronger than steel.

Until now, the application of carbon nanotube technology has been severely limited due to the lack of a cost-efficient method of producing large sheets of carbon nanotube material.

However - as reported recently in the journal Science - the UTD/CSIRO team recently demonstrated that synthetically made carbon nanotubes can be commercially manufactured into transparent sheets that are stronger than steel sheets of the same weight.

Carbon nanotube materials have a number of potential applications in, for example: organic light emitting displays, low-noise electronic sensors, artificial muscles, conducting appliqués and broad-band polarized light sources that can be switched in one ten-thousandth of a second.

Starting from chemically grown, self-assembled structures in which nanotubes are aligned like trees in a forest, the sheets are produced at up to seven metres per minute. Unlike previous sheet fabrication methods - using dispersions of nanotubes in liquids - this dry-state process produces materials made from the ultra-long nanotubes required to optimise their unique set of properties.

“Rarely is a processing advance so elegantly simple that rapid commercialisation seems possible, and rarely does such an advance so quickly enable diverse application demonstrations”, says Dr Ray H. Baughman of the NanoTech Institute.

“Synergistic aspects of our nanotube sheet and twisted yarn fabrication technologies will likely help accelerate the commercialisation of both technologies, and UTD and CSIRO are working together with companies and government laboratories to bring both technologies to the marketplace.”

More info: http://www.csiro.au/science/CarbonNanotubes.html

Building a nanobama


Each nanobama looks like a dot with the human eye but takes on the resemblance of Barack Obama under a microscope. Each face is made up of around 150 million nanotubes.

You’ve heard of nanotubes, nano-metres and nanotechnology - but what’s a nanobama? It’s an image of US president-elect Barack Obama created with nanotubes. The nanobama faces (pictured here) are each approximately 0.5 millimetres wide, or about ten times the width of a human hair. But they’re created by growing around 150 million carbon nanotubes (about the same number as people who voted in recent US election), each measuring tens of thousands of times smaller than a human hair.

Carbon nanotubes are tiny hollow cylinders of carbon. Weight for weight, they are several times stronger and stiffer than steel. These nanotubes are grown by a high-temperature chemical reaction, using patterns of nanoscale metal catalyst particles arranged in the shapes of Obama’s face. Each face contains millions of parallel nanotubes, standing vertically on the substrate like a forest of trees.

The nanobamas were created by John Hart, an Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Michigan in Michigan. He built them as a unique homage to Barack Obama, and as a clever way of getting people to think about science.

For more info and his creation, visit his website at http://www.nanobama.com/

Know your material

How efficient can a silicon solar cell be?

First-generation silicon photovoltaic cells have a theoretical maximum efficiency of 29% (meaning they can capture 29% of the energy of incident sunlight), and with each advance in solar cell technology researchers have been gradually inching towards that limit. Researchers at the University of NSW in the ARC Photovoltaic Centre of Excellence currently hold the record for the most efficient solar cell. However, because of a recent revision of the international standard by which solar cells are measured, their record has been revised upward widening their lead on the rest of the world. The revision has meant that their world record of 24.7% now stands at 25% (a number much easier to remember).

Solar Record

Dr Anita Ho-Baillie and Professor Martin Green with a silicon wafer containing record-setting solar cells

Centre Executive Research Director Professor Martin Green said the jump in performance leading to the milestone resulted from new knowledge about the composition of sunlight.

“Since the weights of the colours in sunlight change during the day, solar cells are measured under a standard colour spectrum defined under typical operational meteorological conditions,” says Professor Green.

“Improvements in understanding atmospheric effects upon the colour content of sunlight led to a revision of the standard spectrum in April. The new spectrum has a higher energy content both down the blue end of the spectrum and at the opposite red end with, dare I say it, relatively less green.”

The recalibration of the international standard, done by the International Electrochemical Commission in April, gave the biggest boost to UNSW technology while the measured efficiency of others made lesser gains. UNSW’s world-leading silicon cell is now six per cent more efficient than the next-best technology, says Professor Green.

Dr Anita Ho-Baillie, who heads the Centre’s high efficiency cell research effort, said the UNSW technology benefited greatly from the new spectrum “because our cells push the boundaries of response into the extremities of the spectrum”.

“Blue light is absorbed strongly, very close to the cell surface where we go to great pains to make sure it is not wasted. Just the opposite, the red light is only weakly absorbed and we have to use special design features to trap it into the cell,” she says.

“These light-trapping features make our cells act as if they were much thicker than they are,” explains Professor Green. “This already has had an important spin-off in allowing us to work with CSG Solar to develop commercial ‘thin-film’ silicon-on-glass solar cells that are over 100 times thinner than conventional silicon cells.”

ARC Centre Director, Professor Stuart Wenham said the focus of the Centre is now improving mainstream production. “Our main efforts now are focussed on getting these efficiency improvements into commercial production,” he says. “Production compatible versions of our high efficiency technology are being introduced into production as we speak.”

The world-record holding cell was fabricated by former Centre researchers, Dr Jianhua Zhao and Dr Aihua Wang, who have since left the Centre to establish China Sunergy, one of the world’s largest photovoltaic manufacturers. “China was the largest manufacturer of solar cells internationally in 2007 with 70% of the output from companies with our former UNSW students either Chief Executive Officers or Chief Technical Officers”, says Professor Green.

More info: m.green@unsw.edu.au

Tin Tacks

A history of roofs and hailstones

Though it’s rarely acknowledge, the parable of the three little pigs was actually a story about materials engineering - what should you build your house with to keep out big bad wolves? Clearly straw and wood don’t cut it. Well now, in a similar vein, researchers at the University of Western Sydney (USW) are asking a similar question about what we need to build our roofs with if they are to keep out big bad hailstones.

A new study of hailstorms in Sydney has found that many of the city's roofs are unable to resist the large hailstones expected to hit every 10 years. Professor Alan Jeary, from the UWS School of Engineering, has used innovative techniques to determine the interval between hailstorms and the likely size of the hailstones that fall.

Hail Damage

A broken roof from a hail storm in Sydney in 2007

In the past 20 years, Sydney has been hit by six significant hailstorms which have caused over $5 billion (equivalent in 2007 dollars) damage. The December 2007 storm in Blacktown alone is expected to cost in excess of $400 million.

Despite the economic, physical and emotional toll the storms have on communities, Professor Jeary says Australian Building Codes do not currently acknowledge the potential danger of hail.

"The current wind codes in Australia require buildings to withstand a one in 1000 year wind storm, yet preliminary data analysis suggests the devastating hailstorm in Blacktown last December could happen as often as every 10 to 15 years," says Professor Jeary.

Using an innovative technique that was originally used to analyse windstorms in Denmark, Professor Jeary has studied Sydney hailstorms. The preliminary findings show:

  • Hail 30 to 40mm in diameter, which breaks glass and plastic, recurs every 5 years
  • Hail 40 to 50mm, which cracks old slate and other tiles, recurs every 10 years
  • Hail 50 to 60mm, which breaks old slate and other old tiles and cracks new tiles, recurs every 15 years
  • Hail 60 to 75mm, which breaks new concrete and terracotta tiles, recurs every 20 years
  • Hail 75 to 85mm, which breaks all new tile and slate roofs and dents corrugated metal roofs, recurs every 50 years.

According to Professor Jeary, a key element of any building code relating to natural events is establishing how frequently they occur and how significant any single event is likely to be.

"Using standard statistical measures, there hasn't been sufficient historical data on hail size to establish the risk of hail damage - so the threat has been being largely ignored by regulators, builders and manufacturers," he says.

However, Professor Jeary believes the preliminary figures from the new study demonstrate there is a pressing need to closely examine the standards for roofing and establish new guidelines so roofs can resist hail damage.

"It is extraordinary to contemplate replacing a roof potentially every 10 years because of hail damage," he says.

More info: Paul Grocott (Senior Media Officer) p.grocott@uws.edu.au

Sensational Materials

Nutritional ‘Trojan horse’ based on crab shell

Researchers at Monash University have designed a nano-sized ‘Trojan horse’ particle to help healing antioxidants enter the human body.

Dr Ken Ng and Dr Ian Larson from Monash University's Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences have designed a nanoparticle, one thousandth the thickness of a human hair, that protects antioxidants from being destroyed in the gut and ensures a better chance of them being absorbed in the digestive tract.

The ‘Trojan horse’ particle is a tiny sponge-like chitosan biopolymeric nanoparticle based on a protein found naturally in crab shells.

Antioxidants are known to neutralise the harmful effect of free radicals and other reactive chemical species that are constantly generated by our body. Antioxidants are thought to promote better health. Normally our body's own antioxidant defence is sufficient, but in high-risk individuals, such as those with a poor diet or those at risk of developing atherosclerosis, diabetes or Alzheimer's disease, a nutritional source of antioxidants is required.

Dr Larson said orally delivered antioxidants were easily destroyed by acids and enzymes in the human body, with only a small percentage of what is consumed actually being absorbed.

The solution is to design a tiny sponge-like chitosan biopolymeric nanoparticle as a protective vehicle for antioxidants. Chitosan is a natural substance found in crab shells.

"Antioxidants sit within this tiny trojan horse, protecting it from attack from digestive juices in the stomach," explains Dr Larson.

"Once in the small intestine the nanoparticle gets sticky and bonds to the intestinal wall. It then leaks its contents directly into the intestinal cells, which allows them to be absorbed directly into the blood stream.

"We hope that by mastering this technique, drugs and supplements also vulnerable to the digestive process can be better absorbed by the human body."

The research project will proceed to trials early in 2009. Dr Ng said although the research was still in its early stages, the longer term aim of the project would be to include similarly treated nanoparticles into food items, similar to adding Omega-3 to bread or milk.

"For catechins - the class of antioxidants under examination and among the most potent dietary antioxidants - only between 0.1 and 1.1 % of the amount consumed makes it into our blood. If we can improve that rate, the benefits are enormous."

More info: Dr Larson on (03) 9903 9570

Aluminium sandwiches make for safer cars

Two aluminium-based developments - aluminium ‘foam’ and aluminium honeycomb structural components - are showing promise as strong, light and safe automotive materials in testing being undertaken at Swinburne University of Technology.

Dr Tracy Dong Ruan

“Typically, the energy absorbed by aluminium sandwich panels is double the energy absorbed by solid metals of equivalent mass,” says Dr Tracy Dong Ruan.

The research into these materials could be laying the groundwork for a new, lightweight generation of vehicles that would increase motorists’ safety and reduce the hip-pocket pain from the petrol pump.

According to Swinburne mechanical engineering lecturer Dr Tracy Dong Ruan, the research will provide a thorough understanding of the crashworthiness and energy absorption of materials and constructs such as aluminium honeycombs and foams and their products - metallic foam sandwich panels and foam-filled tubes.

“It will potentially open the way for their application in safer automobiles, and it will uplift Australia’s design of environmentally friendly, lighter and safer cars,” says Tracy Ruan.

The novel forms under investigation at Swinburne will better protect passengers in a crash than regular car bodies, because aluminium foams and honeycombs can undergo large plastic deformation at a nearly constant and relatively low force. “Therefore, in a car crash, aluminium foams and honeycombs and their products would crush to absorb impact energy, protecting passengers from injury or the car structure from being damaged,” she says.

Ruan likens this to electrical goods that are packaged inside white foam casings. The casings’ cellular structure has a great capacity to absorb impact and shock.

In a similar manner, the metallic foam core inside the sandwich panels being studied would compress to absorb the energy of an impact, decreasing the impact force of a collision on a vehicle’s passengers. The Swinburne research has already proven the materials’ ability to absorb considerable energy in this situation.

“Typically, the energy absorbed by aluminium sandwich panels is double the energy absorbed by solid metals of equivalent mass,” says Ruan.

Although the researchers are still building data on the sandwich panels and foam-filled tubes, they are already able to show how various samples absorb energy - allowing manufacturers to judge the best form, or construction, for different applications.

According to Dr Ruan vehicle designers worldwide are starting to appreciate the potential benefits of such materials, with a number now working with metallic foam producers and researchers. BMW and Austrian firm LKR have designed an engine-mounting bracket incorporating a metallic foam core, while French automotive supplier Valeo is working on a crash box with metallic foams manufacturer Cymat.

Dr Ruan believes vehicle manufacturers will go down this road, given that the aerospace and aircraft industries have already used these types of sandwich panels.

More info: druan@swin.edu.au

Stopping rust in its tracks

The costly, ongoing replacement of corroded infrastructure across Australia may soon be a thing of the past with new research underway at the University of Newcastle.

The University of Newcastle's Professor Rob Melchers has secured $1.1 million over five years from the Australian Research Council (ARC) to extend his groundbreaking research into the causes of corrosion of infrastructure.


Professor Melchers’ research has shown that bacteria are a major contributor to steel corrosion.

Professor Melchers believes that governments and industry were facing spiralling costs with the relentless deterioration of infrastructure due to corrosion.

"A better understanding of the factors at play in the corrosion process will lead to greater accuracy in predicting the reliability and durability of infrastructure,” says Professor Melchers.

Rust is conventionally believed to be a chemical reaction between iron, water and oxygen. Professor Melchers' previous ARC-funded research on steel infrastructure near the sea discovered that bacteria were a major contributor to steel corrosion.

The next phase of Professor Melchers' research will investigate the potential influence of bacterial activity in inland infrastructure corrosion in industrial, agricultural, rural and alpine environments.

"With the support of the ARC, I will be able to expand my research to analyse both the potential influence of bacterial activity and its dependence on environmental conditions on inland infrastructure corrosion," says Professor Melchers.

"Through DNA analysis of the bacteria in the rust, I will be able to understand the life cycle of the rust process and the factors that allow the bacteria to thrive. Understanding the conditions under which bacteria can grow may be the key to controlling their influence on corrosion.

"As our infrastructure ages across the country, particularly in rural areas, the potential commercial gain from this research is significant. As well as savings to governments and industry, the findings could pave the way for the development of new corrosion resistant steel and related products."

More info: Rob.Melchers@newcastle.edu.au